A Long Strange Trip from Historian to Publicist
An Interview with Dennis McNally
First Appeared at The Music Box, October 2002, Volume 9, #10
Written by John Metzger
Your first book on American history was about Jack Kerouac. What was your reasoning for making him the focal point?
The actual choice of Kerouac came about for a couple of reasons: one intellectual and two practical. He was chronologically my immediate forbearer ó in the í50s I read On the Road ó and I was consciously resisting the flattening effects of the academic world by looking for something that was outside the conventional culture to study. Kerouac seemed appropriate.
What pushed it over the edge were these two grad school considerations. The first of which was the condition that I was incredibly broke. As a graduate school student, I had no money.
One day, my best buddy, Chris ó my only buddy, because I was a great graduate student for the first year ó said to me, you should do Kerouac because all of his papers are at Columbia, which was not entirely true, but close enough. This all happened thirty years ago this month [August 2002].
Coincidentally, I was at U Mass Amherst two years before. At that time, my parents lived in Haverhill, Massachusetts which is 20 miles from Lowell, where Kerouac was from, So, those two things were very persuasive.
Shortly after seeing your first Grateful Dead concert, you made the decision to pen a second volume, this time revolving around the Grateful Dead. What was it about them that hooked you so readily and made it seem like such an obvious choice for part two?
Well, to round out that story, that same guy Chris took me to my first Dead concert about eight months later, dropped a hit [of LSD] in my mouth and said go have fun. And I did to put it mildly. So the connection, outside of the obvious of Neal Cassady and all that ó the ultimate factor was that On the Road was one of the most important things to happen to Jerry Garcia, which I was to find out. For me, the connection was obvious. It was ingrained in my experience already, and within six months of going to my first Grateful Dead concert I went, "You know, what Iím really doing here is a two volume thing. Volume One is a American history through Kerouac in the í40s and í50s. Volume Two is through the Grateful Dead in the í60s and í70s." And because Iím slow, I rang in twenty extra years just for fun.
But during that extra time you first became the Grateful Deadís historian, and then their publicist.
To make a very long story short. I sent Garcia the book, met him and found out he liked the book very much and just how deeply important Kerouac was to him. A little while later he said, "Why donít you do us?" And I said, "I like that, sure" because thatís what I wanted to do all along. But I also know that there was no way I could walk up to him and say, "I want to be your biographer." It wasnít going to work. Fortunately, he had that idea, and it all worked out.
So I spent about 3 Ĺ years doing the biography and researching. Then, they needed a publicist, and I needed a job. About a year into that ó trying to do both jobs ó I realized that it was not working, simply because I didnít have the time. Working for the Grateful Dead is more than a full time job, and besides that, the basic points of view are in conflict. A publicist advocates, and although I didnít lie very much ó when you work for the Grateful Dead, you really donít have to; itís all weird enough that you can tell the truth ó there were certain secrets I kept.
At any rate, I said, look. Iíll take notes, but forget writing the book. So, I put it aside for twelve years (1985 through 1997). Finally in 1997, I had recovered enough from Jerryís death to begin. I re-researched for about three years, reviewed everything, did all the reading, re-interviewed the band. And, two years ago I started writing.
After being the bandís publicist for so long, how difficult was it to put that aside to become a biographer because the points of view are in conflict?
Jerry Garcia was the most cynical and honest skeptic I ever knew. There was craziness, and there was occasional conflict. But, there wasnít a lot of delusion. People were pretty honest. Everybody in the band ó the four founding members ó have all read it; they vetted it for facts. Not once did anybody say, "Oh, leave that out itís embarrassing." Never. And, I say things that are quite critical of the band."
It wasnít really hard at all. Once I got to that point where it was ready to go....you know you have to have a balance. Everybody does dumb things, and you talk about them. To endlessly dwell on them is boring. As a writer you need to move on from things simply because you canít bog down. But, it just wasnít very hard.
Thereís a line in history that no man is a hero to his valet. Well, nobody is a hero to their employees. They were heroes when they were playing because that was separate. But, I kept my own opinion as to what was going on, always, and sometimes I thought they did dumb things It wasnít hard to remember. It wasnít hard to write down.
Did your role as publicist make it easier or more difficult to capture the history of the band?
It made it easier. Thereís three layers to this. I have a doctorate, and thereís a professional history to it. That really covers the í60s and early í70s. Itís really easy to talk about the history of America (of what was going on at that time) through the experiences of the Grateful Dead because they kept bumping into things ó not even intentionally. They didnít care about student rebellion. Yet, they were at a college when Kent State happened. They played at Columbia in the middle of a student strike ó not because they supported the strike, particularly, but because it was an adventure. They never issued a Grateful Dead statement against the war in Vietnam, but they played a lot of anti-war efforts. It was very easy to connect them to American history.
The second stream is my being a deadhead.
The third stream is that there is a whole underlying spine through the book that is the practical side of the music business. I would not have had that if I were not an employee. It gives the book a gravity and a specificness that Iíve never read. When I say itís the inside history, people usually assume that itís kind of scandalous. But, the Grateful Dead had less scandal than your average band. Besides that, itís all come out in the last few years anyway ó one way or the other. So, there are no great surprises in a scandalous nature. Itís an inside history because I was inside and because I talk about it at a very practical level: how it actually happened, how a promoter steals from a band, what influence the crew actually had, what it was like at the office.
The book follows an interesting layout. Itís basically a chronological history and evolution of the band and its place in America as well as the music business. But interspersed throughout the book are short sidetrips that offer insights on everything from the LSD culture to life on the road to the workings of the band as a business entity. How did the book evolve from its beginnings into this final format?
All in one day. All kidding aside, the most creative four or five hours in my life, possibly. I had these tapes I needed to take up to [Dan] Healy who lived about 300 miles north of San Francisco. I could have Fed-Exed them, but it was a good excuse to take a drive.
I had been working on the book for about three years. I knew that a straight linear accounting was not sufficient, but I hadnít figured out the structure of it. I took this drive, and a couple of hours into it, the structure suddenly started falling out of my head. So, I grabbed a piece of paper, and I had it on the steering wheel. I almost drove off the road four times because I was very excited. In effect there were three types of chapters. There were linear chapters. There were subject chapters. And, there was this hypothetical year.
But, as Louis Sullivan would have said, form follows function. Originally, I came up with the idea of 64 chapters for the I Ching. But because you donít force things into a framework, I eliminated some because they didnít make sense any more. But that basic structure ó those things sitting together and evolving ó fell out even then.
The point is this. Iíve read [biographies of musicians], and once they are established artists and develop routines, it gets redundant. It really gets boring. The fact is that by the early í80s, the Grateful Dead had a structure to their lives. There were great shows and only ok shows, but the structure of the show was pretty well fixed. The structure of the tour year was pretty well fixed. And to repeat that is stupid. So what I did was to idealize it and create this archetypal year.
Although the í80s were less eventful than the í60s, there is still a lot of information on that period. Itís just presented in a different way.
It seems like a lot of the early stuff lets you know why the band members were the way they were and it explains some of the stuff in the Ď80s chapters.
Absolutely. Iíve never understood going really deep into grandparents. Some people think thatís really important. It certainly wasnít to me. You get through Jerryís parents in the first few pages. The ends are found in the beginning, always, in everyoneís life. And if you canít see the patterns emerging in childhood, then you donít have enough information about the childhood. Thatís just the way it works in peopleís lives. Basic personalities are clear very early on, and everything else becomes obvious after awhile."
The group had a rather chaotic business structure that seemed to take dysfunctionality to a new level. Given this, how is that the band was able to achieve such a degree of success?
But it worked. It wasnít dysfunctional. It seemed that way. If you define business structure as how to make large sums of money, then yes, it was dysfunctional. But that wasnít what the Grateful Dead was about. What weíre talking about is making enough money to keep the spiritual adventure going. They did that very well. If you went to the Grateful Dead and said, "Have I got a deal for you...youíre going to make so much money...," youíd be laughed out of the room. Thatís not what was going on. The first rule was: Is it fun? Is it creative? Is it a good idea? And then theyíd figure out a way to do it if everybody agreed. They made plenty of money.
The Grateful Dead spent five times more every year on their sound system than any other band ever did, and Iím not just talking about the Wall of Sound in their early days. It was even more so later because that was part of the bargain with their audience ó that was their bond with their audience. It was important to spend money on that.
They paid all their employees almost twice as much as they could get anywhere else. Iím not saying they were saints or that they were denying themselves, but....
A classic example is, of course, Egypt in which they spent an enormous amount of money for them, then, based on the premise that they were going do an album, recorded live at the pyramids. And they didnít play well. Though none of them would ever admit it to me, I think just being in front of the pyramids overwhelmed them, and it was a little too hard to focus.
They listened to the tapes and Jerry said, no album. They played some really weird places in í79 and í80. They had to recover [the money spent on] that vacation. It took them well into the early í80s just to get back [financially] from that vacation. It took him almost all of the late í70s just to recover from the hiatus. They really did not make any money before the hiatus ó not any large sums. They were just starting to get prosperous, but, of course, they were also financing the Wall [of Sound] and what went before it. So, it all adds up to the fact that they only started to make money ó what people think of as money, what even they thought of as money ó in the last ten years. It really kicked off with In the Dark, and from then on we sold 99% of our tickets. And, yes, they certainly were prosperous. Of course, Garciaís theory on that was that money is fine as long as you spent just a little more than you made, which is why he was waiting for his next paycheck when he died. He had one chunk of money from the Harrington Street book, which was set aside by his bookkeeper and his lawyer. He left behind a little bit of art, a comic book collection, some instruments, a couple cars, and the house.
Possessions were not the point, and money was not the point. Thereís a Freudian thing about how money is equivalent to shit, literally, and Jerry felt that as long as it flowed through and left ó large amounts or small amounts, it doesnít matter as long as you spend it just a little bit faster than you get it. He lived that sincerely.
As the tale unfolds, it becomes apparent that the band is very much a product of its time. In fact itís so complicated and so intertwined with what was going on in both the Bay Area and the music business, as well as with the politics and culture of the USA and the world ó do you think the Grateful Dead would have had the same impact had they come about at a different time, either earlier or later?
No. A little hole opened up in American society in the í60s. It was begun by the civil rights movement. It was widened by the Vietnam war. It was further widened in San Francisco by acid. And, particularly, in 1965 and 1966 there was this opening. It was possible to live very inexpensively, to go about your business with a minimal concern for getting and spending. Some bright people in the Haight-Ashbury took an intellectual vacation from American society and created a little new society within the shell of the old. And it worked.
It had profound connections with what happened in the í50s, which of course was even smaller. The whole Beat scene was 200 people. It was really tiny; it was incredibly powerful, but it was small. And the Haight-Ashbury scene, before it was inundated, was a couple of thousand people, all of them more or less connected. Not kids. These were people in their 20s. And of course, they emerged from under the radar, had the Be-In, and blew their own cover. The Be-In was a big mistake. It was a glorious day but a big mistake.
What was it about the In the Dark period that saw them explode so tremendously?
I once said that I could really do a solid hour on why In the Dark was such a big success. There were a lot of reasons.
One reason is that there was a giant reservoir of good will with Jerry Garcia, which, given that he had just about checked out the year before, was waiting. Of course that chorus [from Touch of Grey], "We will get by/We will survive" ó everyone in the music business, none of whom were really Deadheads, didnít realize that the song had been played for four years. It was the resurrection and the redemption of Jerry Garcia. And, it was a good snappy rock ínĎ roll song.
Arista had not had a studio album in seven years, and they killed themselves to support it more than any record company ever had. As one of the guys that I interviewed said, this was mostly because it was clear to Arista that it was eminently possible that the Grateful Dead would never do another studio album. And they had to do well with it. They were auditioning to stay the Deadís record company.
There was publicity and promotion that was more effective than before. Mostly because I was a little more efficient than prior people in that role ó maybe not as inspired. One of the reasons I ended up being the tour publicist is that by the time I came along in í84, there was a whole layer Deadheads in the media ó radio, tv, and print ó who were now in positions of some authority. They had clout, and they wanted to repay the Dead for what they had already gotten. They were still Deadheads ó people like me who had gone to college on the East Coast in the late í60s. By the middle í80s, weíre adults, or some facsimile thereof. All of these things added up to an explosion.
MTV ó if you look at the history of MTV, that period 1987-88 ó it had started out with style players like Michael Jackson and Madonna. And then there was heavy metal. And then for this brief period, they made conscious room for the older groups, like the Grateful Dead, who had made a clever video. Of course, the reason that they made the video was that it required two hours of their lives. The whole reason that they went for the Touch of Grey video was that their personal participation in it essentially boiled down to this: At Laguna Seca, they did a show, they ate and took a nap, and they came back on stage and mimed the record for about two hours. It was the skeletons doing all the work, and the puppeteers. Thatís why they did it because they didnít want to be bothered. And it turned out to be a really excellent video.
The most obvious thing is that it was a good song, and the end result was that they had a hit single.
The other thing was, when they made the album ó as we all know, the Grateful Dead did not like being in the studio ó they didnít get the juice from the audience. In January 1987, they were as healthy as they ever were; they were as focused as they ever were; they as individuals were glad that Jerry was back; Jerry was glad that Jerry was back; they were sober; and all this good stuff [came together]. They went in and instead of dicking around and doing what they did with Built to Last ó which was never being in the studio together and just absolutely picking the most horseshit way of recording an album that they possibly could ó they went in almost live ó they had the technology of making it sound like it was in the studio, but it was essentially live ó and in three weeks they had the basics done. In another two weeks they basically had the overdubs done. It might have been a couple more weeks than that, but it was essentially done in two months. The rest was [John] Cutler and Jerry tweaking. They had material that they could do that with ó and with a couple of exceptions, most of that album was stuff they played long enough that they knew what they were doing. It had achieved its growth.
All of that adds up ó it was fresh, it worked, and there you go.
To finish the story ó because as I say in the book, "that god damned album" ó watching it go up the charts was fun. Iím not saying that everybody was immediately going "oh this is awful, we have a hit." But what happened was that throughout the previous twenty-five years, people became Deadheads in an organic way. Which is to say, they had a friend that said, "Thereís this cool band, you ought to check it out. Come on down" Just like me. Particularly older brothers ó Iíve signed more books for older brothers in the last couple of weeks: "Thank you for taking me to my first Grateful Dead show." When you do it that way, youíre not going just to a party. You learn that what you are doing is participating in what boils down to a giant spiritual exercise. It brings a lot of joy, itís fun, it has a lot of party elements, but itís not just a party.
What happened when we got in the mass media, which is to say on the radio with a hit, was that you have a couple of hundred thousand people who hear a song on the radio, think it sounds good and decide to go down to the show to check it out. There, they run into this raging party in the parking lot and never get beyond it. They never learn that thereís more beyond it because they never get in because they donít have tickets. And that reached a point where it came very close ó and in effect in Ď95 it did ó reach the point of canceling one show and generally making it impossible to do a show.
You were the catalyst behind last yearís Birth of the Dead package as part of the Golden Road box set. It really captures in song what you are talking about in the book. Will you be putting together additional albums? Is anything planned?
The first CD, with one exception (which Phil vetoed) ó the studio stuff is as close to complete as we could get. And the second one is just a sampler ó a best of what we had access to from í66. It was a fascinating exercise. I tried to do it in the í80s and got vetoed. So when the Rhino thing happened, I got involved with that both to write the liner notes and do that.
It was fun. Itís interesting when youíre as intimate with a bandís sound as Iíve become over the years to look at the baby steps and see what they did.
David Gans wanted to do a compilation that follows along that hypothetical show and pick a version of each of those songs. At first blush that might sound like a good idea, but in fact, what youíd be doing is picking a song here and a song there, and the sound of the band would change so much. Thereís only one place in those songs, maybe two, where I can tell you that what Iím writing about is this specific show. And thatís the transition from Playiní into Uncle Johnís Band. Thatís a specific show I was at in 1974. It was only a so-so second set, but the first set ended with that, and it was mind-boggling. Forty-five minutes of Playiní>Uncle Johnís Band>Playiní to end the first set, and we were sitting there at the intermission just gasping and wondering how the hell they were going to top that. And I was right, they didnít. But thatís alright. And the Dew was ó you know, you can pick Barton Hall because it was the best or Europe í72 for that matter, maybe the Lyceum just because ó you canít really say itís better...itís different but not better. But other than that, I donít have the energy. Itís just one of those things: To do it right is really complicated.
Will there be a third chapter in your American History series?
Iím thinking about a book about the Mississippi River, Highway 61, and four artists that live along it. Bob Dylan, Mark Twain, Robert Johnson, and a jazz player to be named later. And about geography, art, history, sociology, and what not. In May, my present to myself for finishing the book was to drive the length of the Mississippi, and I had a great time.
Itís a good idea. Itís got potential. I am at the stage where I have no idea whatís going in that book, which is fine. Iím not in any hurry. Itís the best part of the process because itís like ó yeah, that might work. Iím picking up books and reading them and seeing what I see. So, in four or five years Iíll have some grasp of what Iím doing.
Of Further Interest...
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